Updated: Oct 14, 2019
The recent rapid rise of populist, far right movements across the globe make many wonder whether the far right is an international movement sharing the same characteristics, or whether each country’s far right political groups diverge depending on the historical, social and economic context that their countries are in. To do so, we decided to compare the far right movements of two countries experiencing a surge in their far right political formations in recent years: France and the United States. The French “Rassemblement National” and President Trump’s rhetoric do share a large number of characteristics, which include an anti-globalist stance, a strong sense of national superiority and a populist rise to power. However, they do diverge in more ways than many imagine, including in economic policies, governmental control, and a variety of core issues ranging from gun rights to abortion.
Although it is easy to pinpoint the French Far right movement, which is called the “Rassemblement National” and is led by Marine Le Pen, the American far right is more difficult to pinpoint due to the huge diversity of thought within the American Republican party. The American political organization that embodies the most the far right per say would be the “Tea Party”, which shares a multitude of similarity with Trump in terms of its rhetoric, style, and substance. Comparing the RN to the American Tea Party is thus a good start to compare the French and the American Far Right.
The American Tea Party is an American political movement that gained prominence after Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009. It embodies “anti-establishment” right wing conservatism in the United States of America, as described by Horwitz (1) . It resembles the French National Front party in various ways.
First, the two right wing populist parties are strongly opposed to the elite running the government of their respective country, composing the “establishment” against which the Tea Party is oriented. Indeed, they both criticize the fact that their country is governed by an old-lasting crooked bureaucracy, that is no longer in accordance with what the people want. Their political discourse describes the political space as a strong opposition between an elite that is far-fetched from the realities that people live in, and they present themselves as the only ones capable of defending the people in this situation. They emphasize on the divergent interests of the two groups. In this way, they can both be categorized as populist. The Tea Party also resembles the Rassemblement National in the way that traditional values are at the basis of its political ideology. In fact, their respective political ideologies are quite close on some points. Socially speaking, they have as the basis of what they are defending, conservative Christian traditionalism. Even though the Rassemblement National has normalized its discourse under the impulse of Marine Le Pen, French traditional values are still what the party is trying to defend in the first place, in an ethno-culturalist approach of what should be the nation. As for the Tea Party, they extrapolated on the supposed origins of Barack Obama, stating he was not American and of Muslim confession (2). They both oppose immigration and want to achieve a homogenous cultural society, with the ‘people’ sharing similar values.
Economically speaking, the Tea Party relies on libertarianism, strongly opposing the intervention of the state. It seeks to lower state expenditures to reduce its deficit. It also opposes taxation that are seen as reducing people’s liberty. In fact, its defenders believe in property rights and in the fact that freedom depends on how much you own property, and that taxes go against this right (the State stealing successful people’s property). On the other hand, the Rassemblement National is much less liberal in the sense that it criticized former socialist French President François Hollande lack of taxation on the richest part of the population. It is also supporting a reduction of state expenditures, but encourage a taxation of all French citizens “even symbolically”.
The RN and Trump’s political movement also share similarities in the way that they rose to power. To begin with, it is important to remind that Trump’s political party and the French far-right party -the Rassemblement National- share numerous ideological similarities. Whereas Nathan Gonzales (3) argues that liberal parties usually focus on health care reforms, we can see that both of these parties emphasize on anti-immigration policies, and especially those concerning Muslim populations. They also insist on the principle of “border security” and often advocate for national economic protectionism, and a sense of national pride. Above all, both political parties are an illustration of “populism”, emphasizing on the exclusionary definition of the people along racial or ethnic lines. In terms of electoral success, both parties share a strikingly similar trait: they benefit from the flaws of their political systems and have been gaining power by striking these weaknesses.
The first of these weaknesses that we can notice is the lack of trust in political institutions. Indeed, the idea that “all politicians are corrupt” is widespread, and distrust in politicians has become mainstream.
The second of these weaknesses is the growing or remaining inequalities, in domains such as education, income, or racial discriminations. This can also explain the divisions between citizens as well as the growing gap between rural and urban areas, which benefits populist parties. In fact, as we can see on Nathan Gonzales’ map of the 2018 Elections Results (4), whereas big cities voted for the Democrats, smaller cities and rural areas voted for the conservative party, which is also what we could observe in France during the European elections last month which constituted a victory for the Rassemblement National.
Another main issue is the polarization of the media, which was mainly explained by Cokie Roberts at the National Press Club (5). For her, the main issue in the United States is that news is too polarized, "white males only hear or read news that interest them", but we need to have a mix of interests in order to improve the people's general knowledge and ability to construct themselves a structured and matured opinion. She argues that this period is worse than what it used to be as "we are not in it together", and bringing people together is even harder as Donald Trump is tearing the American society apart. This is the reason why the American society –just like the French society- is in need for education, training, and need to understand and recognize cultural and demographic differences within America.
In this last segment, we will discuss how the RN and Trump compare on 3 “core issues”: gun laws, abortion and LGTBQ rights.
In terms of gun rights, the American far right is without much surprise, very attached to their guns. In their mind, the 2nd Amendment guarantees their rights to own guns, and no argument/facts is stronger than the Constitution. The interesting thing about gun culture in America is that while far right, pro gun advocates are extremely nationalist and patriotic, one of the reasons they own guns is to protect themselves from their own government. . In France, no text explicitly states the rights for French citizens to bear arms, and therefore there isn’t as much as a debate over whether private citizens should have weapons or not. What the RN pushes for however is 2 things: the rights for weapons for hunters, as well as the right to practice shooting within a shooting range. Marine Le Pen is even a member of the “Federation Francaise de Tir”, the “French Federation of Shooting as a sport”.
The issue of abortion is a recurring theme in American politics. Democrats are pro-choice, Republicans are pro-life. There are differing degrees of pro-life and pro-choice. When talking about the American far right and abortion, let’s keep in mind the massive influence Evangelicals have. To put it short: the American far right is against abortion, and that stance is unlikely to change due to the continued pressure of America’s religious communities in cases such as the recent Alabama ruling, lead many to think that the reversal of Roe VS Wade (Supreme Court Case which gave the right to abortion) is dangerously approaching. The Rassemblement National is for a wide debate regarding abortion, maybe remake some rules, help women who are considering abortion consider another option, but they are far from wanting to suppress it. Quite frankly, in a country like France, if the Rassemblement National advocates for a suppression of the “IVG” (Interruption Volontaire de Grossesse), they would lose a lot of support as the right to abortion is deeply ingrained in French people’s minds. The influence of religious groups in France exists, but it relatively small for two reasons: 1) the strict separation of church and state, stemming from the ideas of the French Revolution 2) the concept of “laicite”, which encourages people to keep their religious practices and beliefs within the private sphere.
The RN does want to take away the state’s financial coverage of abortion, if the abortion isn’t a medical emergency, or any other special case.
Lastly, in terms of LGBTQ, it is hard to define Trump’s stance on the matter. On a personal level, Donald Trump does not appear to have any personal issues with the LGBTQ community. He tweeted at the beginning of pride month that he was thankful for all the contributions that the LGBTQ community has made to the world, and when asked about his opinion about Pete Buttigieg’s (openly gay) run for president, he said it was a sign of progress. However, where Trump’s stance on the issue get murky is when you factor in the support of the Evangelical community, essential to Trump’s electoral success. Overall, Trump’s stance on LGBTQ matters is blurry: in terms of the American far right’s stance on LGBTQ rights, it varies depending on their association to God. Evangelicals have an extremely harsh and closed stance on LGBTQ matters, while the more “moderate” far right like Trump knows that they cannot publicly be homophobic as they would lose massive support. For the French “RN”, Marine Le Pen has heavily worked on improving the party’s image, and has actually attracted a large amount of voters from the LGBTQ community. This comes in part from the fear some LGBTQ voters have about the growing Muslim community in France, and the way the RN capitalizes on that fear, similarly to Trump’s “Muslim Ban” rhetoric. Suprisingly, the “moderate” right party in France (Les Republicains), has had more of a anti-homosexual stance, heavily participating in the “Manif Pour Tous” a manifestation movement with an anti-homosexual marriage stance. However, even within the RN party, there are disagreements. MLP’s niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen, has had a more anti-homosexual stance, confusing voters on the party’s official stance.
Overall, the French far right, and the American far right do have much in common at the surface, as they mostly use the same populist rhetoric and the same arguments in order to get elected. However, digging deeper into each party’s real policies shows us that they do not have that much in common. Europe’s history of the welfare state, different constitutions, and the unequal influence of religious organizations in both countries makes both parties’ policies almost at polar opposites, excluding the whole “national pride” argument.
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(1): Horwitz, R. B. (2013). America's right: anti-establishment conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea
Party: Cambridge: Polity, chapter 5
(3): Nathan Gonzalez, speaking at a private event for the UCDC program
(5): Cokie Roberts speaking at a private event at National Press Club